Wild at Heart

David Lynch’s Wild at Heart isn’t wild at heart — it’s wild everywhere else, particularly the groin. “Heart” isn’t a word you might associate with Lynch, who has made two of the most heartless films in recent memory — Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, which just about dare you to stay in the same room with them. I don’t, by the way, mean “heartless” as an insult. Lynch does have a taste for melodrama — romantic anguish and bliss pushed far beyond what’s ordinarily accepted as literal — but he seldom shows much affection for his characters, or, if he does, it’s aesthetic affection. Lynch puts his people in weird or terrifying situations, and when they respond in a way that satisfies him he leans back and says “Fantastic.”

Wild at Heart is something of a break from Lynch’s usual experimental detachment. He’s not studying his characters so much as presenting them this time. Yet they’re still inarguably Lynchian people, who say oddball things and nurse cornball fantasies. The movie is based on Barry Gifford’s novel, which Lynch probably selected because of its southern-fried road-gothic strangeness (almost all of the film’s dialogue comes straight from Gifford). It’s a gentle, rambling road novel, with two central characters — ex-con Sailor and his hot-to-trot sweetheart Lula — that perhaps Lynch is fond of, in his way. Gifford had the lovers separate at the end, but in the movie they stay together; Lynch has said he couldn’t bear the thought of breaking them up — they’re perfect for each other.

We’ve only just sat down when Sailor (Nicolas Cage) is set upon by a knife-wielding assassin. Sailor pounds on him for a while, then cracks the man’s skull open on the marble floor. That’s Lynch’s way of saying, “This isn’t the kind of dream that lulls you in, like Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.” And it’s not. If anything, it’s a return to the stink and paranoia of Eraserhead — full of vomit left to dry on motel rugs, splattering brains, body parts suspended in air or carried off by dogs. It’s not a pleasant film by any definition, and it’s not remotely for everyone, but it’s true to Lynch’s vision. He’s doing what he wants. It may not be what most other people want, but that isn’t Lynch’s concern; it never has been.

Lynch doesn’t fiddle much with the novel’s basic plot. He uses it as a springboard for bizarre attractions, as he did with Frank Herbert’s Dune. The whole movie is Sailor and Lula (Laura Dern) on the road, running from the various burnouts and psychopaths that Lula’s gonzo mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) has sent after them. For this reason, Lynch can’t ground the movie; there’s no innocent small town for him to explore. The universe of Wild at Heart is aggressively, unapologetically insane from frame one. But that has its own allure. The movie skitters along, stopping for a car accident here, a bank robbery there. Lynch also tosses in lots of people who aren’t in the book: a stone-faced hit man who has been hired by Lula’s mother to kill Sailor; a big-time gangster named Mr. Reindeer who does business over the phone while sitting on the john; a trio of wackos headed by David Patrick Kelly and Grace Zabriskie (both of Twin Peaks); a befuddled old space cadet (Lynch regular Jack Nance) who talks about his imaginary dog. There’s also a great deal of homage to The Wizard of Oz — Lynch apparently means this to be his R-rated version of L. Frank Baum’s over-the-rainbow world, with its menagerie of creatures and misfits.

The director also gives the Lynch touch to a few characters he imports from Gifford: Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), Marietta’s lover, who giggles and plays a bit of peekaboo with her; Lula’s cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), seen in flashback, who enjoys putting cockroaches in his underwear; and, worst of all, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), an ugly sociopath who nearly rapes Lula in her motel room (the movie comes to a dead stop so we can watch Dafoe, in fake-toothed grotesque closeup, forcing Laura Dern to say “Fuck me” over and over; the camera seems to be swimming in the delirium of sexual violence threatened but never acted on). They’re all here, the whole sick crew.

After a while, the parade of loonies becomes a bit tiresome. And Lynch’s ending is so cornball that I imagine most of this film’s audience, attuned to Lynchian irony, will take it as a joke and snicker at it; but it’s by no means clear that he means it as a joke. The movie is on fire, though; like it or not, it sticks to the ribs of your mind. Everything is there for effect, even the performances. Cage and Dern go way over the top into erotic desperation and doomed romanticism; the supporting cast, to a man (or woman), seem to have been encouraged to outdo the excesses of silent-film actors. There are really no humans here, just actors instructed to deliver lines that have no connection to our reality but are somehow true to the movie’s own frenetic reality.

Wild at Heart, despite winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes (or perhaps because of it), has been almost unanimously denounced by critics, and I think I can see why. The biggest mistake David Lynch ever made was releasing this film after his Twin Peaks series premiered and won the hearts of a thousand journalists looking for a good cover story. There’s been so much Lynch hype that he’s begun to seem like the flavor of the month, the media’s favorite oddball. But he’s their favorite only when he doesn’t shake them up — when he works inside a traditional, not wholly respected medium and brings art and class to it. Such people, I suspect, would rather Lynch made “nice” films like The Elephant Man for the rest of his life. That’s all right, Dave, make your little drama for television, but don’t get too crazy — don’t make us lose sleep, don’t make us lose our lunch.

Despite minor qualms, I don’t find Wild at Heart offensive, as many critics have (Roger Ebert just about wet himself panning the film on his show); but I do find those critics’ stay-in-your-place attitude offensive. Lynch is trying to grow as a filmmaker, to go somewhere he hasn’t gone before, but the critics want him to deliver Twin Peaks over and over. I find that too abhorrent to think about. Pauline Kael once wrote, “If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.” And if you’re afraid of Wild at Heart

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, lynch, tspdt

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